Peter Ong on art in Malaysia
Writer: Dominic Luk
Published: Fri, 29 Jun 2012
Peter Ong has had a colourful career in the local performing arts scene and around the region, having performed in many operas and musicals. To date, Ong has performed in operas like Tosca and Turandot, as well as musicals like Cabaret and The Wizard of Oz. He read law at the University of Bristol and obtained his Master’s Degree from the London School of Economics. Selangor Times speaks to Peter about how he started his journey as a professional performer, and what he thinks about the industry.
Selangor Times: What productions are you currently working on?
Ong: It’s been a really busy year so far. At the moment, I’m preparing my work for two major projects that will be staged in Singapore later in the year. The first is for the Singapore Lieder Festival on Sept 7-8, which is a festival dedicated to the art song, and I will be singing songs by Hugo Wolf as well as the full cycle of Brahm’s Liebeslieder.
I’m very excited about it as it will be my first time singing works by these composers, and it’s been really interesting to explore their musical aesthetics. Singing the Germanic repertoire is always fascinating in the sense that one has to be able to identify and appreciate all the subtle nuances, be it the text or the musical structure. Immediately after that, I go into rehearsals for the staging of Sondheim’s iconic musical, Company, which runs from Nov 1-18.
It will be my first fully-staged Sondheim role debut, so I’m very excited about it. Apart from the Phantom, the Emcee, Jean Valjean, and Sweeney Todd, the role of Bobby is one of the few leading male roles that has this ‘iconic’ stature in the musical theatre repertoire, and I’m very excited to get to perform this role with Dream Academy Productions under the direction of Hossan Leong.
Selangor Times: As a professional performer on stage, what do you enjoy most?
Ong: The preparation. The searching for the truth or the aesthetic value of a piece of music or a role. As a performer, we must search out the underlying truth that the composer or the author intends to convey. Of course, we build upon it, interpret it, etc. But we must first find out what it is exactly. And it is this process, before and during rehearsals, that I find most rewarding; the affirmation of human truths.
Selangor Times: When and how did you begin performing? And do you ever wonder what would be different if you had not become a performer?
Ong: It started from the day I stood up to sing ‘It’s a small world’ in kindergarten!! I’ve always had a love affair with the stage. All throughout school and university, I could never really find a cure for the stage bug. Even whilst contemplating a ‘respectable’ career in law or banking or advertising, the stage was always there, lurking in the background.
I do wonder sometimes what sort of person would I be now had I not allowed the stage to come to the forefront. I don’t know what I would have been like, but I do know that I’m in a really happy and content place now. Counting my blessings and full speed ahead!
Selangor Times: What qualities should Malaysian performers and those who are aspiring to be in the industry have or should strive to work on?
Ong: I’ve been very fortunate to have had amazing teachers and mentors. They’ve taught me that there is no substitute for discipline and perseverance. And the need for constant learning. This is a job where your technical abilities need to be second nature. That you know, even with a cold, or a stomach upset, that you can still get up there and deliver your role.
There’s always something to work on and to improve. But most professional producers and directors are not interested in helping you learn your craft. We need to come to the job prepared, which means constant training, constant lessons, and constant improvement.
This is a marathon of a career. It’s about how long you last and not how fast you reach the finish line. You can get a leading role at 21 and get no more work after. Or you can keep on working at your craft, developing your versatility and palette throughout your lifetime. It’s a very conscious decision one has to make.
Selangor Times: Looking at performing arts on a global scale, where do you think Malaysia stands?
Ong: Malaysia has so many talents. So many. Our stage talents are in demand in many cities overseas. It’s just a shame that the theatre going culture in Malaysia is still in its infancy. I think the government can definitely do more in terms of promotion and development.
We do not have the facilities nor the support to fully exploit the potential of this market. Many people travel for culture. It is a precious asset, one which we Malaysians need to start to treasure. There’s this other stigma that if it’s a Malaysian production or a Malaysian talent, that it must automatically be second rate. Many a times, at the theatre, you hear of that famous saying, “Not bad for Malaysian standards”.
I would like the public to know that our professional practitioners hold to the same international standards as is expected anywhere else. Are Malaysian doctors or lawyers or accountants second rate to everyone else? I should hope not, as much as I am certain that more practitioners nowadays in the stage industry take their craft very seriously.